Continued from Foreign Mud – Part 1

Any fair-minded student of imperialism is compelled to admit that the British constantly sought to open up a more regular form of commerce with China. Their diplomatic efforts were unflagging, but the Chinese viewed them only as outside “barbarians” bearing tribute. In 1792, for instance, the Lord McCartney was carried up river on a boat with the inscription “Tribute-bearer to the Emperor.” Once having reached the imperial court, he was refused an audience unless he would “kowtow” – more pidgin, and a bitter pill for a proud British peer. He was finally allowed to compromise by merely bending his knee, but came away with no trade concessions. Lord Amherst a few years later was not even granted an audience. China’s ruling elite clung to the faith she was entirely self-sufficient and despised trade in general, most especially with inferiors from abroad. Though by now omnipresent in the West, China remained completely foreign to it. Communication was illusory.

The concession the British wanted most was for the emperor to legalize opium and this one emperor after another steadfastly refused to do. The British response was to corrupt the Imperial Customs by cutting its officials in on their constantly more profitable drug traffic. By the late 1820’s, the Company was conniving at the export of fewer than ten thousand cases of opium annually to China; by 187o this rose to over one hundred thousand. In a book published in 1882, an American businessman named W.C. Hunter recollected how opium smuggling on such a scale could be carried on from an island in Canton Bay:

So perfect a system existed (with which foreigners had nothing whatever to do) that the business was carried on with ease and regularity. Temporary interruptions occurred, as for instance on the installation of newly arrived magistrates. Then the question of fees arose; but was soon settled unless the newcomer was exorbitant in his demands or, as the broker would express it, “too muchee foolo.” In good time, however, it would be arranged satisfactorily, the brokers reappeared with beaming faces, and peace and immunity reigned in the land . . . The Canton officials rarely made any reference to the Lintin [Island] station; but sometimes, compelled by a force to do so, would issue a proclamation ordering vessels “loitering at the outer anchorage” either to come into port or sail away to their own countries lest the “dragons of war” should be opened, and with fiery discharges annihilate all who opposed this, a “special edict.”

Continued in Foreign Mud – Part 3